Below and Beyond the Horizon: Jean Dubuffet in The David M Solinger Collection

By: Eleanor Nairne
“Ultimately, it’s about the universe that surrounds us, the places that confront us, all the objects that meet our gaze and occupy our thoughts”
Jean Dubuffet, Letter to Andreas Franzke, 3 August 1980

According to the traditions of composition, an artist should place their horizon line one or two thirds from the base of the canvas. For the postwar provocateur Jean Dubuffet, this was a cardinal rule to be ruptured: he made his ground rise up to the brink of threatening to eclipse the sky and sink his canvas. Brume du matin sur la campagne, 1945, has only the skimpiest ribbon of vivid blue above the hazy countryside, while Scène dans un paysage de rochers, ou trois malandrins dans les rochers, from the following year, has a band of navy so narrow and close in hue to the murky backdrop of the highwayman that a casual look might not discern it. By the summer of 1948, in Chamelier, this kind of sliver had been exaggerated into a signature device – used to offset the churning land below.

Scène dans un paysage de rochers pictured in the Solinger apartment, New York

Dubuffet’s aim was radically simple: to return us to the earth and, in doing so, to remind us of the organic continuity between our feet and the ground beneath them. Looking at the two figures gamboling across the mass of wine-dark paint in Prompt Messager from 1954, I think of the character of Joane in Clarice Lispector’s first novel Near to the Wild Heart from 1943. ‘There were many good feelings. Climbing the hill, stopping at the top and, without looking, feeling the ground covered behind her, the farm in the distance. The wind ruffling her clothes, her hair. Her arms free, heart closing and opening wildly, but her face bright and serene under the sun. And knowing above all that the earth beneath her feet was so deep and so secret that she need not fear the invasion of understanding dissolving its mystery. This feeling had a quality of glory.’[1]

Clarice Lispector, Near to the Wild Heart,1944

Lispector was just 23 years old when she published her blazing novel, leaving Brazilian critics to grapple with what one called her ‘bewildering verbal richness’.[2] Dubuffet was nearly twice her age by the time he committed to being an artist (after a successful career as a wine merchant) but he shared many of her interests in breaking traditional idioms in order to ‘surprise the symbol of the thing in the thing itself’.[3] Or to put it another way: what if a seemingly childlike image of a craggy landscape, with sand and gravel embedded into the very paint, had a better chance of rendering its qualities than any picturesque easel painting could hope to? ‘Grope your way backwards!’ Dubuffet liked to exclaim; amateurism made a new kind of sense in the wake of the barbarity of the Second World War, which so thoroughly discredited western notions of human rationalism and civility.[4]

When Dubuffet had his first solo exhibition at Galerie René Drouin on the Place Vendôme in Paris in October 1944, Jean Paulhan wrote a letter for the catalogue, delighting in the fact that his friend’s ‘paintings were not at all a ministry, nor a theorem, but a sort of rejoicing, something like a public celebration’.[5] In fact, visitors were not sure how to respond to his crude imagery, which must have felt like the rudest interruption into the particularly French history of la belle peinture. Some even staged protests outside the gallery – which only spurred the artist on. His fundamental commitment was to matière, as the base truth to all existence; ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

A photograph of Dubuffet in his studio in 1951 by Robert Doisneau, makes him look like more like an eccentric cook than an artist – with pots and pans and palette knives at the ready to ice his latest creation. Gastronomical metaphors were at home in Dubuffet’s writing. As a man who railed against specious intellectualism, he felt more at ease comparing his work to provisions than Picasso. ‘Let the artist’s mind, his moods and impressions, be offered raw, with their smells still vivid, just as you eat a herring without cooking it, but right after pulling it from the sea, when it’s still dripping,’ he encouraged.[6] He was equally fond of animalistic imagery. Indeed, the hautes pâtes, of which the three highwayman is a prime example, were infamous for taking on a life of their own. In his catalogue essay for Mirobolus, Macadam et Cie at the Galerie René Drouin in 1946, Michel Tapié wrote of ‘one painting, over the course of an entire night [which] spat all over the harmonium… Dubuffet enjoys these adventures enormously, calling them “hippopotamus perspiration”’.[7]

Jean Dubuffet in his Paris studio, 1951. Photo © Robert Doisneau/Gamma- Rapho/Getty Images. Art © 2022 Fondation Dubuffet, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The anecdote speaks to Dubuffet’s essential concern with how he could use humble materials (household paint, asphalt, glue, shards of glass, frayed string, coal dust and so on) to make his pictures teem with life. After the fields that were destroyed by battles, how could an artist paint a landscape any other way? Dubuffet worked with his canvas or board directly on the floor of his studio so that it had a literal relationship to baseness; he used a kind of putty to build a tactile relief onto the surface to create ambivalence about whether we are looking at a cross-section of a landscape or an aerial view. As part of his search for new perspectives, Dubuffet made three extended trips to Algeria between 1947 and 1949, where he learned Arabic and lived with Bedouin communities, inspiring works such as Arab and Camel from 1948.

Once back in Paris, he attempted a kind of landscape painting that would capture the spirit rather than the likeness of these extreme Saharan environments. As he explained in his catalogue text for Pierre Matisse Gallery in 1952, a paysage such as Chamelier was not intended to represent a specific site or an idealized place (although the title may point to one of the recent Algerian excursions) but to offer a journey into ‘the country of the formless’ – a landscape of thought.[8] His intention was for these works ‘to show the immaterial world which dwells in the mind of man: disorder of images, of beginnings of images, of fading images, where they cross and mingle, in a turmoil, tatters borrowed from memories of the outside world, and facts purely cerebral and internal – visceral perhaps’.[9]

Left: Cover of the exhibition catalogue, Jean Dubuffet, Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, 1947

Right: Cover of the exhibition catalogue, Mirobolus, Macadam et Cie, Rene Drouin, Paris, 1946

As time wore on, Dubuffet increasingly withdrew into this territory of philosophical enquiry. Why paint the world as seen in the mind’s eye when the mind’s eye could be an image in itself? His ‘L’Hourloupe’ works, for example, were began quite by accident when he was doodling on the telephone in July 1962. The fluid figures he had absent-mindedly drawn with his four-colour ballpoint pen were then embellished with diagonal stripes and cut out and mounted onto black card – which became the beginning of a series that would possess him for more than 12 years, including paintings, sculptures, architectural environments and performances. Épisode, from 22 January 1967, is characteristic, with its sinuous faces and shapes enmeshed in a patterned matrix – a reminder that we all belong to the same universal soup. The membrane between the so-called real world and the imaginary appears to be finer than we might have chosen to believe.

Playful and provocative to the very end, Dubuffet found new ways to conjure the vibrancy of our fragile existence. Finally abandoning his horizon line altogether, in his later decades he embraced a journey into the formless, much like Joana experiences in Near to the Wild Heart: ‘All of her body and soul lost their limits, mixed together, merged into a single chaos, soft and amorphous, slow and with vague movements like matter that was simply alive. It was the perfect renewal, creation’.[10]

[1] Clarice Lispector, Near to the Wild Heart (London: Penguin Classics), p. 36. Lispector took her title from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: ‘He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life’.

[2] Benjamin Moser, ‘Hurricane Clarice’, Near to the Wild Heart, xi

[3] Moser, ‘Hurricane Clarice’, Near to the Wild Heart, xi

[4] Jean Dubuffet, ‘Notes for the Well-Read’ [‘Notes pour les fins-lettrés’, 1945], trans. Joachim Neugroschel in Mildred Glimcher, Jean Dubuffet: Towards an Alternate Reality (New York: Pace Publications / Abbeville Press, 1987), p. 67.

[5] Jean Paulhan, Letter to Jean Dubuffet in Exposition de tableaux et dessins de Jean Dubuffet, exh cat, Galerie René Drouin, Paris, 1944, n.p.

[6] Dubuffet, ‘Notes for the Well-Read’, p. 77.

[7] Michel Tapié, ‘Mirobolus, Macadam et cie: hautes pâtes de J. Dubuffet’, reprinted in Catalogue des travaux de Jean Dubuffet, vol. 2, ed Max Loreau (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1966), p. 119.

[8] Jean Dubuffet, ‘Landscaped Tables, Landscapes of the Mind, Stones of Philosophy’ in Peter Selz, The Work of Jean Dubuffet, exh, cat, The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1962), p. 63. Dubuffet wrote this text in English with the help of the artist Marcel Duchamp for the eponymous exhibition catalogue at Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, 12 February – 1 March 1952.

[9] Dubuffet, ‘Landscaped Tables’, p. 71.

[10] Lispector, Near to the Wild Heart, p. 90.

Stay informed with Sotheby’s top stories, videos, events & news.

Receive the best from Sotheby’s delivered to your inbox.

By subscribing you are agreeing to Sotheby’s Privacy Policy. You can unsubscribe from Sotheby’s emails at any time by clicking the “Manage your Subscriptions” link in any of your emails.

More from Sotheby's